Ever since the dawn of civilization, the Middle East has played an important part in world affairs, but even more so since the discovery of oil there. Its proven reserves, now estimated at some 200 billion barrels, are more than twice those in the Western Hemisphere, so to an increasingly industrialized Europe, its significance has grown immeasurably. One day atomic energy will supplant oil as a source of industrial power, but that day is not yet.
The increase in oil consumption since the end of World War II has been phenomenal, particularly in Western Europe. It has risen from 133 million tons in 1956 to 421 million tons in 1966, and is now responsible for some 40 per cent of the industrial energy consumed there. The Middle East provides Europe with 68 per cent of its oil requirements from wells in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. A further 16 per cent is obtained from wells in Algeria and Libya, 14 per cent from the Western Hemisphere, mainly Venezuela, and the balance of 8 per cent from miscellaneous sources. Although as the aftermath of the recent Israeli-Arab conflict showed, it is possible to offset a partial interruption of Middle East oil supplies by increased purchases from non-Arab countries, the cost is high and could not be sustained indefinitely, without causing serious adverse effects on the economies of the countries concerned. A total stoppage could not be countered in a similar manner. Stockpiling to cushion the effect of any stoppage is being attempted, but with a steadily rising demand, it is difficult to construct storage tanks fast enough to keep ahead.
Although Algeria and Libya, strictly speaking, are outside what the oil companies consider as the Middle East, they are both Arab countries, so it can be said that 82 per cent of Europe’s oil supply is under Arab control, and therefore the political relationship between the countries of Europe and the Arab world is closely linked to the supply of oil.
In 1839, Britain annexed Aden, and ever since then she has been regarded as being responsible for the defense of the Middle East. But today she is trying to divest herself of that responsibility, and in so doing is offering a prize of incalculable value as a hostage to fortune, and exposing it to the disruptive forces of nationalism, age-long tribal and religious feuds, and the greed and envy that inevitably follow in the train of great wealth, suddenly acquired.
Foremost in the struggle to fill the vacuum caused by Britain’s withdrawal, is President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, whose dream of a United Arab Republic, embracing all the Arab states, is still a long way from being realized, but is nevertheless being pursued relentlessly in an endeavor to undermine the social structure of the sultanates and sheikdoms that abound in the Arabian Peninsula. Nasser is backed by Russia, which while not wishing to get directly involved, sees in the situation an opportunity to advance its own interests. The Communists thrive on unrest, and here, as we shall see, are all the powerful ingredients of a witch’s brew.
It was to guard against a southward thrust by Russia into the Middle East, that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles promoted the Baghdad Pact, concluded between Iraq and Turkey on 24 February 1955. Britain, Iran, and Pakistan acceded to it later that year, while the United States remained technically an observer to it.
Although the Pact may have effectually deterred Russia from embarking on any adventures in the area at that time, it had a number of unfortunate side effects. It soured Anglo- Egyptian relations, that had just started to improve, with the signing of the 1954 agreement to evacuate the Suez base, because Iraq’s adherence to it sabotaged President Nasser’s program for Arab neutrality in the Cold War. Iraq itself became the target for the full blast of invective from Cairo’s radio and was virtually isolated from the rest of the Arab States. This was followed by the abortive Franco-British coup at Suez in 1956, and by the armed revolution in the Lebanon in May 1958, when U. S. forces responded to President Camille Chamoun’s appeal for help. Then came the coup d’etat in Baghdad on 14 July 1958 and Iraq’s withdrawal from the Pact on 24 March 1959. In consequence, the Baghdad Pact became the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) on 21 August 1959.
It is true that during the eight years of its existence, CENTO can claim to have achieved a certain amount of economic co-operation between its members, but without the adhesion of Syria and Iraq, from a military point of view, it is in poor strategic shape. As far as Britain is concerned, it duplicates existing channels of co-operation with Turkey through NATO, and with Pakistan through the Commonwealth. We are left with Iran, a most important link in the anticommunist chain, an oil-producing country, and the geographical position of which makes it particularly vulnerable to Soviet attack. If CENTO did nothing else, by linking Iran with the West, it performed a worthwhile function.
Although the opposition of most of the Arab countries to CENTO stemmed from a desire not to take sides in the Cold War, it has not prevented many of them from accepting gifts of Soviet arms and equipment, that have been flowing into the Middle East in considerable quantities. Even President Nasser, a professed neutralist, in addition to ships, aircraft, tanks, guns, and supplies of all kinds, is beholden to the Russians for his most cherished project, the Aswan High Dam. However much he may publicly express his opposition to the Soviet ideology, it is a fact that the shaky Egyptian economy is bolstered up by the Soviet Union. This is more evident than ever, since the defeat of Egypt by Israel, and the closing of the Suez Canal, at a cost to the former of some 18 million dollars a month.
In 1958, Nasser reached the zenith of his prestige in the Arab world, when the shortlived union between Egypt and Syria enabled him to proclaim the United Arab Republic, in which also the Yemen was included for a brief period. When the revolution in Iraq overthrew the monarchy and brought about the death of the pro-Western Prime Minister, Nuri al Said, it looked as if his dream of an Arab hegemony was about to be realized. But things did not work out that way. The honeymoon with the new government of Iraq was short-lived, and in 1961, Syria broke with Egypt. However, by taking advantage of the political unrest endemic to that country, Egypt managed to reassert her influence, a pro-Nasser revolt took place in March 1963, leading to a restoration of the status quo. It is interesting to note, that it was Syria’s constant harassment of Israel, that led to the recent conflict. But despite the display of unity among the Arab nations engendered by the confrontation with Israel, the Arab world is still virtually divided into two camps, one conservative in outlook and opposed to Nasser’s social revolution, headed by King Feisal of Saudi Arabia, and supported by King Hussein of Jordan, King Hassan of Morocco, and the Shah of Iran; the other revolutionary and republican, headed by Nasser, with the lukewarm support of Iraq and Syria.
In 1962, at a time when Nasser’s popularity was at a relative low ebb, the military revolt took place in the Yemen, plotted, it is generally believed, by his agents. Anyhow, he quickly ordered his forces to intervene, an action that has proved costly and on the whole ineffective. Then in February 1963, a military coup in Iraq brought yet another change in the government of that country, and one more favorably disposed towards Nasser’s idea of Arab unity, in word, if not yet in deed.
It is perhaps not surprising that in such unpropitious circumstances, the growth and influence of CENTO has been stunted, and that many people regard it as of little consequence in the context of the East-West struggle. But while the threat against which it was created may have receded, it has been replaced by an equally dangerous and much more subtle one.
The disappointing performance of the Egyptian troops in the Yemen had caused Russia to lose interest in her protege, but ever since the announcement of Britain’s intended withdrawal from Aden in 1968, it has noticeably revived. In 1966, during his official visit to Egypt, the Soviet Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin, appears to have reassessed that country’s potentialities as an instrument for the furtherance of Soviet aims in the Middle East. He was accompanied by Admiral Gortchakov and a small section of the Soviet naval staff, and no doubt the exploitation of Aden, after the British withdrawal was discussed. In return for Soviet assistance, the ships of the Soviet Navy would be granted the use of the facilities there. This would be of immense benefit to Russia, since she would be in a position to control the exits from both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and consequently the seaborne supply of Middle East oil.
The British Government—while admitting its treaty obligations to a number of Arab States and recognizing, as the Secretary of State for Defence Mr. Dennis Healey said in Parliament on 7 March 1966—“The Gulf is an area of such vital importance, not only to Western Europe, but to world peace,” is under strong pressure to continue the run down of its forces in the area, but it is in a grave dilemma. It finds itself fighting a rear guard action in Aden against Nasser- sponsored terrorists, and with a tenuous hold at Hamala in the archipelago of Bahrein, inside the Persian Gulf. The maintenance of this last is clearly dependent on the favor of the Ruler, and he, like the rest of the Arab rulers, is under strong nationalist pressure to evict the British. In the Supplementary Defence White Paper (Cmnd 3357) published on 18 July 1967, the British Government was noticeably vague about its future policy in the Middle East after its forces have withdrawn from Aden. The paper states “For a short time after independence, however, we shall provide British naval and air forces in the area to assist the new state (the South Arabian Federation) to deter, and if need be, to meet external aggression.” The temporary nature of this commitment should be noted.
It is clear, therefore, that there is an urgent need for the consumers of Middle East oil to devise some other means of safeguarding their interests in that part of the world. It is no good trying to renegotiate the CENTO treaty, because the Arabs with their infinite capacity for self delusion are no more likely today to appreciate the advantages of an alliance with the West than they were 12 years ago.
Of the 260 million tons of crude oil exported to Europe from the Middle East in 1966, Britain took 21, Italy 20, Germany 15, France 14, and the Netherlands 10 per cent. The balance of 20 per cent was distributed among the remaining countries of Europe. It is therefore reasonable that the five major consumers should get together to provide the necessary forces. All are capable of doing so; it is only the political initiative which is lacking.
For over half a century, the Royal Navy maintained comparative peace in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf with a handful of sloops and occasional visits by cruisers. It was the function of these ships to guarantee the territorial independence of the numerous states bordering on these waters without becoming embroiled in their internal politics, and on the whole, it was very successful. Of course, the Indian Army was on call for troops if required, but these were very rarely needed. The cruiser in which the writer was serving in 1927 was sent to the island of Henjam, in the lower part of the Gulf to deal with a reported landing of Persian troops on the island, which was leased to Britain as a coaling station. The appearance of a detachment of Royal Marines fallen in on the pier with bayonets fixed was quite sufficient to deter the would-be invaders. As the Kuwait incident showed, provided they are on call, seaborne forces can be deployed quickly, and effectively, to deal with an emergency.
In recent years, however, there has been a failure to understand that, against the wave of nationalistic fervor which has swept the world since the end of World War II, to oppose political cunning and perfidy with static forces is to invite just the kind of situation which exists in Aden today. Even if Britain manages to withdraw from Aden without getting involved in a Vietnam kind of war, she is creating a similar situation for herself by her build-up at Bahrein, which is to be expanded to absorb at least a portion of the military trappings discarded at Aden. At present, the forces there comprise a parachute battalion and a light battery, and at the airfield of Muharraq, which is shared with civilian traffic, a squadron of Beverley aircraft and two of Hunters, together with half a light transport squadron. The Beverleys are to be replaced by Argosies, and the facilities are to be increased to permit the handling of the large transport aircraft now using Aden.
Three hundred miles further south, at Sharjah, is sited the headquarters of the Trucial Oman Scouts, some 1,600 strong, with British and Arab officers, and Arab troops. In 1968, these are to be reinforced by an infantry battalion and a squadron of Wessex helicopters. Both the Sultans of Kuwait and Muscat have their own forces, to which a number of British officers are seconded. Naval representation in the Gulf is normally limited to three “British type” frigates. A landing strip has also been constructed on the island of Masirah, off the south coast of Oman, from which “V” bombers can operate.
But instead of getting more firmly tethered to barracks and airfields ashore, Britain could, if she wished, achieve the same object by the use of sea power, and without risking the loss of prestige, which evacuation under pressure incurs. Until such time as international co-operation is secured through diplomatic channels, she could employ her not inconsiderable amphibious capability to maintain the status quo. This includes two Commando ships, two Assault ships, and ten Army logistic ships. Her main weakness is in carrier availability and this will become more pronounced with the phasing out of two of these ships in 1969 and 1971 as announced in the White Paper just issued. It is in this respect that France and the Netherlands could assist, by providing a carrier from time to time for a turn of duty in the area. Britain’s sea and air lift capability will soon be sufficient to move two light brigade groups, and this should be adequate for dealing with the sort of trouble likely to occur there.
To sum up, as recent events have shown, most of the countries of Europe and Britain in particular stand to suffer severely from any interruption in the supply of Middle East oil. The political situation in the countries from which it is obtained is far from being stable, but it is quite impracticable to impose a solution on them by force of arms. Although it is clearly to the advantage of the oil-producing countries to sell their product, political or military disturbance may prevent this. It is also worth remembering that the equipment needed to produce the oil and costing many millions of pounds or dollars, belongs to the oil companies that installed it. Although it is not in their interest to appear to rely on military support, it is to the advantage of both the producers and the consumers that peace should be maintained in this part of the world. The presence of troops and aircraft ashore in the present political climate cannot be other than provocative, but on the other hand to withdraw completely would be to invite anarchy. It is suggested that the solution to this problem lies in the unobtrusive deployment of seaborne forces, preferably international in composition, but until this can be arranged, stability must be maintained, and the best way of doing so is by the use of sea power.